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Critic's Notebook

With age, the wisdom of staging 'Lear' becomes less clear

Could 'King Lear' be one of those works whose greatness can be glimpsed only through private meditation?
A great stage production of 'King Lear' is nigh on impossible to find, yet we still search

Now that baby boomers are reaching their seniority, it's no surprise that there has been a rush on "King Lear." Graying actors of a certain magnitude want their crack at the greatest role left for them while graying audiences are drawn to a subject (the mounting losses wrought by age) that is becoming ever-more terrifyingly familiar.

Yet the more I encounter this masterpiece in the theater, the more I'm inclined to go along with a remark of America's chief champion of the Bard, Harold Bloom, who in "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," concedes: "Our directors and actors are defeated by this play, and I begin sadly to agree with [English essayist] Charles Lamb that we ought to keep rereading 'King Lear' and avoid its stage travesties."

This heretical line of thinking was prompted in me by the high-profile Shakespeare in the Park "Lear" with John Lithgow. Ira Glass of the popular radio program "This American Life" infamously tweeted after seeing the production that, though Lithgow was "amazing," Shakespeare was "not good."

My assessment is exactly opposite. This fair to middling production, directed by Daniel Sullivan and featuring Annette Bening as a glamorously cast Goneril, made me wonder if the play might not be unreachably sublime. Could it indeed be one of those works whose greatness can be glimpsed only through private meditation, like an ideal form in Plato's philosophy?

Trust me: I'm not overreacting to a single patchy production. In the last decade I've seen Christopher Plummer, Ian McKellen, Dakin Matthews, Harry Groener, Robert Foxworth and Derek Jacobi each get their turn at bat. I regretfully missed Frank Langella's performance this winter at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but I did catch Simon Russell Beale, an English stage actor of supple wit, as an unusually spry, still-middle-aged Lear in Sam Mendes' slick staging at London's National Theatre this spring.

Though I wouldn't label any of these revivals "travesties," none lived up to expectations or exhilarated me as intensely as my own periodic confrontations with the text as a solitary reader. I've seen barn-storming Lears (F. Murray Abraham), female Lears (Ruth Maleczech) and enough student Lears for two lifetimes.

The Lears that have made the deepest impression are those I've seen on screen: Paul Scofield for his rumbling archetypal grandeur, Laurence Olivier for his piercing royal dotage and Ian Holm for his unparalleled transmutation of language into character.

Perhaps the ease with which the camera can take in the play's thunderous expanse while intimately homing in on the anguish of individual figures is an advantage. Whatever the case, the dominant impression in the theater has been one of unwieldiness.

The production in Central Park's Delacorte Theater gives the sense of an overwhelmed military convoy repeatedly changing tactics to stave off defeat. Not only are the acting styles among company members disparate, with little attempt to find a unified approach to the language, but individual performances also lack consistency scene to scene.

The sheer quantity of acting on stage is staggering. Jessica Hecht's mannered society wife Regan, Jessica Collins' blandly earnest Cordelia and Bening's rigidly imperious Goneril seem to be plucked from different revivals. Eric Sheffer Stevens' determinedly contemporary Edmund and Chukwudi Iwuji's frenetic Edgar have only the faintest of theatrical, never mind fraternal, connections.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a source of acute commentary on Shakespeare's plays, and while leafing through his pages on "Lear," I came across an insight that helped me understand my problem with Sullivan's ensemble.

In observing that "Lear's eager wish to enjoy his daughter's violent professions, whilst the inveterate habits of sovereignty convert the wish into claim and positive right, and an incompliance with it into crime and treason …," Coleridge reminds us that this royal fable is at its core a family tragedy. The dynamics at work between fathers and their adult children may be heightened by station, but they are universal.

That sense of the treacherous familiarity of blood ties is played to the hilt but never painfully embodied here. The grand epic nature of the story eclipses the incensed intimacy of this clan. Yet both dimensions need to be honored in performance if this play — a furious myth revealing stark truths about humanity's fundamental condition — is to achieve its full cathartic power.

Lithgow, an actor of commanding intellect and histrionic combustion, cuts a sharp outline. He's fluent with the language and entertainingly various in his delivery, finding humor even in exalted poetry. What he fails to be is heartbreaking.

This was the first time that I can remember hearing an audience laugh uproariously after Lear, before allowing the blinded Gloucester (Clarke Peters) to kiss his hand, quizzically says, "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality." But then actors tend to focus on the character's "reason in madness" and not on his capacity for repartee.

"King Lear" is a tragedy in which the façades preventing us from knowing ourselves are mercilessly stripped away. It's a play in which light and dark fight to the death without the insurance of poetic justice. Love is all Lear has in the end. It's not enough to save Cordelia's life — or his own — but it's greater than his kingdom when it was still intact.

This is the story that is remorselessly unfolding. Combining "length" with "rapidity," it should move, in Coleridge's indelible words, "like the hurricane and the whirlpool, absorbing while it advances."

The chaos of conflict and battle — "Lear" is nothing if not furiously contentious — should be working to strip away and distill. The plot should seem inexorable, not cumbersome, as it does here.

But then I don't believe any veteran company can handle the demands of this play with only a few weeks of rehearsal, never mind a group of performers with ragtag experience in Shakespeare's plays. Jay O. Sanders, who plays Kent, has been singled out for praise by several critics, and it's easy to understand the reason: His experience gives him a naturalness with the language few others in the cast can match.

"Lear" needs the commitment of a theater and a director and an ensemble willing to work together over an extended period. It should be treated as the apex of a theatrical career, not as a dazzling résumé line.

But don't think I'm calling for a moratorium. Shakespeare's Globe will be bringing its production of "King Lear" to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica in November. I plan to be there. It's another chance to prove this thesis wrong about the intractable difficulty of performing a classic that seems to be more popular than ever. Nothing, I can assure you, would delight me more.

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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